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Tips on Sticks and Mallets

Josh Harris • Archives • May 13, 2009

Ball, acorn, barrel, or olive tip? Wood tip or nylon? Hickory, maple, rattan, bamboo, or birch? Umbrella, standard, or replaceable felt-mallet head? Wound string or rubber? These are just a few of what seems like an infinite number of questions to be considered when it comes to outfitting the percussion section of a school band or orchestra program with sticks and mallets.

In order to help make sense of how the differences in these products can affect the sound of your ensembles, SBO recently caught up with longtime, and active, orchestral professional, Neil Grover, who is also president of Grover Pro Percussion and SilverFox drumsticks. In this exclusive interview, Neil provides an overview of the essential sticks and mallets that every school band or orchestra program should have on hand.

School Band & Orchestra: Hi Neil, let’s get right to it. What are the essential mallets and sticks that music directors should have in their band room?
Neil Grover: The first thing any orchestra program needs is a good set of timpani mallets. Manufacturers usually offer five or six models, but typically, a program should have three different mallet types: a general mallet, which is good for general purpose playing; a staccato mallet, which is good for slightly harder playing; and ultra staccato, for the most articulate passages.

In addition to those three, it’s good to also have a legato model for very soft passages and a pair of wood headed timpani mallets. However, if I had to make a choice, I would go with the ultra-staccato over the legato. Young players often have difficulty articulating on timpani, so a pair of ultra-staccatos should help them play rhythmic passage with more clarity.

SBO: Is weight a factor to be aware of with timpani sticks, as well?
NG: Yes, but every manufacturer is different and there’s no standardization on this front. There are number of different brands that have good quality, well-balanced mallets. I would stick with one of the more well respected brands. I can’t tell you that 23 grams is better or worse than 50 grams because it’s a matter of individual preference. For a school, I would recommend a good quality, solid, maple-shaft timpani stick. I would avoid the bamboo, which is very delicate and won’t take any abuse. Even though professionals use bamboo quite often, I wouldn’t recommend it for most school programs.

Another thing that should be considered for timpani mallets is that it needs to have a good quality white felt. The better quality mallets usually have very high quality outer felts, which are softer than low quality felts. The low quality mallets produce an undesirable “tick” when struck on the timpani.

SBO: The felt affects the tonal qualities, correct?
NG: That’s right. There are really three different kind of mallet heads for timpani sticks: a parachute style, which doesn’t have a seam; a removable ball-style mallet which allows you to replace the heads without sewing; and then there’s a mallet called a cartwheel mallet, which is more like a cylinder than a ball.

SBO: Perhaps the second of those three might be best for a school ensemble?
NG: Any of the three would work fine for schools as long as the players take care of the mallets. I can’t tell you how many times I see percussion mallets thrown around on the floor of band rooms! Make sure that the timpanists have a secure place to store the mallets and emphasize the importance of taking care of the equipment.

SBO: Moving beyond timpani, what other sticks and mallets would you deem essential to a school music program?
NG: Typically, drumsticks should be the responsibility of the students. The percussion students need to be invested in the program somewhat, and sticks and mallets are what I think they should own and bring to rehearsals and concerts.

SBO: But considering that many kids don’t have much experience purchasing orchestral mallets and sticks, they often turn to the band director for guidance. With that in mind, what advice do you have that might help the educators point their students in the right direction?
NG: Purchasing sticks and mallets is a very personal thing. I would highly suggest engaging a professional percussion educator to get recommendations. Some of the better percussion specialty retailers can also recommend appropriate models.

One thing people should know is that drum set sticks should not be used to play concert percussion, and concert percussion sticks won’t work well on the drum set, either. This is something that happens all the time, and it really makes it much harder to achieve the right sound in the ensemble.

SBO: What are the distinctions?
NG: A concert stick is usually heavier and has a thicker diameter than a drum set stick. The SD1 or SD2 models are appropriate for band and orchestra playing. Drum set sticks, like a 7A model are too light for a concert snare, so they won’t give you a full snare sound. I had a situation recently where a band director asked me to come in and help one of his student drummers who was playing with a school jazz band. Right off the bat, I saw that the kid was using heavy concert sticks, playing 10 times too loud, and dragging! Of course, in jazz, you should use a light stick, because the sound should be lighter. It would be like going to little league and giving kids a major league baseball bat. You would never do that because the kid would swing late every time. Just like a baseball bat, drumsticks have to be size and weight appropriate to the age and use. On the other hand, sometimes it can be easier for a younger child to handle a bigger stick that is easier to grip.

The most important thing is that the stick is appropriate to the genre being played, but you also have to find something that the student is comfortable using. It’s a balance.

Marching band, of course, is a whole other specialty, with dozens and dozens of varieties of sticks available. A generic stick, like a 3S, is a pretty good middle of the road stick for marching band. It might be a good place to start, but I’d also suggest talking to marching band specialists because that is not my area of expertise.

SBO: How do the variations in tip, taper, and other stick characteristics affect the sound that the stick produces?
NG: I prefer a ball tip for my concert work. Many symphonic players prefer an acorn tip, but for a student, I think you can’t go wrong with a general orchestral or band stick with a round tip. The round tip makes the stick a little easier to control, gives a consistent rebound, and helps execute rolls, I believe. It’s a little easier to play. Some of the professionals believe that they get a bigger, fuller sound out of a concert snare drum by playing sticks that have an acorn tip, and maybe a little bit of a darker sound, as well.

If you’re playing a field drum, you might use those sticks as well. For concert toms, you’d probably want to use something different. It depends on the piece: sometimes they do call for a wood stick, in which case the concert stick would be appropriate, but other times you might want to use timpani sticks or a felt mallet.

Other things to consider are that you don’t play rubber on concert toms unless it’s specifically called for. Hard rubber mallets are used on xylophone, and a soft rubber mallet is used for practicing. On suspended cymbals, you want to use a wound mallet, like a marimba or vibraphone mallet; avoid using a timpani mallet on a suspended cymbal!

SBO: Among wound mallets, what are some of the various characteristics to be aware of?
NG: There are hundreds of variations among wound mallets. For example, you have to decide whether you want rattan handles, birch handles, or synthetic handles. A synthetic handle doesn’t break very easily, but professionals usually stay away from them because they are usually too flexible. They are most applicable to a school situation because of their durability.

For vibraphone mallets, you want a rattan handle mallet because it has a stiff flex to it, and you need that flex to play effectively. Typically when playing marimba, while there are exceptions to this, you usually want a long birch or maple handle to give you more control and a wider reach when playing with four mallets.

In general, wound mallets use cord on the vibraphone mallets and yarn on the marimba mallets. That’s to get the right sound out of the bars.

On glockenspiel, you want a hard plastic mallet, and occasionally a brass-headed mallet for specialty use.

For xylophone, you want to use a hard rubber or soft plastic mallet. You should not use hard plastic mallets on rosewood instruments because those may damage the rosewood bars.

SBO: That makes sense. Do you have any other words of advice for music educators?
NG: I would highly recommend speaking with a local professional or percussion instructor, and there are also many resources available on the Internet. One of the greatest resources around is the Percussive Arts Society, which is the premier organization for professional percussionists and percussion educators. They have a wealth of resources and information available on their Web site, www.pas.org.

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